An update: Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (who also happens to be Jewish – see below), may have given Chuck Hagel’s bid for Secretary of Defense a boost just minutes ago when he released this statement: “Senator Hagel is well-qualified to serve as secretary of defense with his broad experience in national security affairs. He was a decorated soldier and an effective member of the Senate, and he is a strong advocate for the men and women of our military. The Armed Services Committee will give prompt and careful consideration to senator Hagel’s nomination for this critical position.”
So, let’s sort this out – President Obama makes an excellent choice of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, reaching across the aisle to nominate a moderate Republican who demonstrated his maverick ways during 12 years in the Senate.
The reaction? The far left and the far right somehow agree that Hagel is bad news.
At the same time, some liberals have jumped to Hagel’s defense, eager to stir the pot in this unfolding GOP intra-party feud. Mostly, they see the absurdity of a Democratic president extending a nomination to a Republican and drawing the ire of GOP “neocons” who are blocking the door – and they want to rub the Republican Party’s nose in it.
But what’s the reaction outside of the nuthouse that our national capitol has become?
Well, Brent Scowcroft and 10 other retired senior U.S. military officials, including Anthony Zinni, a general who played a key role in the Iraq war, signed a letter last week saying that Hagel, a Vietnam combat veteran, would be “a strong leader at the Pentagon” and that he’s “eminently qualified for the job.”
That letter came on the heels of correspondence made public just days prior in which nine former U.S. Ambassadors, including Ryan Crocker, again a key player in the Iraq war, signed a letter praising Hagel’s qualifications for the top Pentagon job.
Then, we have a bipartisan group of former national security advisers -- James L. Jones (Obama), Scowcroft (Ford, Bush 41), Zbigniew Brzezinski (Carter) and Frank Carlucci (Reagan) -- who collectively said they “strongly object…to the attacks on the character” of the former senator from Nebraska, whom they called “a man of unshakable integrity and wisdom who has served his country in the most distinguished manner in peace and war.”
Sounds pretty impressive. But there’s more. These former NSC chiefs, in a joint letter to the editor published in The Washington Post in December, said:
“He (Hagel) is a rare example of a public servant willing to rise above partisan politics to advance the interests of the United States and its friends and allies. Moreover, it is damaging to the quality of our civic discourse for prospective cabinet nominees to be subjected to such vicious attacks on their character before an official nomination.
“This type of behavior will only discourage future prospective nominees from public service when our country badly needs quality leadership in government.”
Yet, somehow, Hagel’s confirmation by the Senate is labeled questionable. In fact, the witchhunt against him intensified today as Obama officially made the Republican his nominee for the Pentagon job.
Of course, a large part of the reason for the opposition is simply that – he is Obama’s choice.
Another key reason for all the rhetoric is that Hagel, who still carries shrapnel in his body from his days as an Army sergeant, does not heed the GOP party line. He was viewed as disloyal in 2008 when he declined to endorse Republican Sen. John McCain for president. And he was essentially stripped of his GOP credentials in 2012 when he dared endorse former senator Bob Kerrey – another Nebraska moderate, but a Democrat, and also a wounded warrior from the Vietnam era – in Kerrey’s eventually unsuccessful bid to return to the Senate.
A third reason for the Hagel bashing is that, despite all of his endorsements from the military brass and the national security status quo corps, he maintains his maverick image as someone who thinks outside the box. More than that, some view him as dissident when it comes to Pentagon orthodoxy.
One former GOP senator who has forcefully criticized his former colleagues for their anti-Hagel games is Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, a George W. Bush loyalist who was often a voice of reason on Capitol Hill.
“They need a creative guy down there who doesn’t have ‘defense-think’ and is willing to go against the grain in a time of shrinking budgets,” Gregg said.
Hagel has said that the Pentagon budget is, “in many ways, bloated.” As chairman of the Atlantic Council, a well-respected nonpartisan group of foreign policy experts, he is viewed as an enemy of the neocons. Hagel prefers to stay out of wars, unless necessary, rather than using them as a club in a hegemonic attempt by the U.S. to transform the world.
So, despite a long, impressive resume, Hagel is attacked for being a sharp critic of Israel and a basher of gays.
His supporters, mentioned above, have tried to neutralize this attack. And many others in the media have stepped forward.
Tom Friedman of the New York Times, one of the foremost experts on the Middle East in journalism circles (who also happens to be Jewish), has praised Obama’s choice of Hagel and has called the smear campaign portraying him as an anti-Semite “disgusting.”
Hagel’s sin of years ago was a reference to a too-powerful “Jewish lobby” exerting undue influence on Capitol Hill. At the time, that was hardly a unique or crude complaint. But since then, GOP senators have adopted an evangelical loyalty to Israel that brings their wrath upon anyone who offers a different point of view.
To be fair, the former senator’s statements indicating a willingness to negotiate with Iran and Hamas are certainly out of the mainstream. But those are views on diplomatic policy that Obama, not Hagel, will control.
Hagel’s second sin was denouncing the nomination of openly gay James Hormel as Ambassador to Luxembourg on the grounds that Hormel was "openly, aggressively gay." If that sounds like a hopelessly out-of-date phrase, here’s why: Hagel made that remark (for which he has since apologized) 15 years ago, in 1998.
Glenn Greenwald, a liberal columnist for the London Telegraph who is gay and who has repeatedly knocked Obama, wrote recently that 1998 was “another universe” in terms of gay rights.
Greenwald noted that same-sex marriage had very limited support in 1998 among Democrats and was anathema in the GOP camp. The new law of the land at the time was the Defense of Marriage Act -- the DOMA law that is now widely derided as discriminatory but was backed by Hagel’s fellow senators, including most of the Democrats.
Even Obama, Greenwald noted, was solidly against same-sex marriage as recently as the 2008 campaign.
To his liberal readers, the columnist offered this: “If you're going to judge politicians by how they felt about LGBT issues 15 years ago, be prepared to scorn almost every national Democratic Party hero you have as a bigot.”
Maybe Hagel’s ace in the hole is that he knows the Senate members well and how they operate. Certainly, the potential Pentagon boss has plenty of ammunition to fire back at his less-than-stellar critics in the “world’s most deliberative body.”